Later school day helping some teens succeed
TAMPA - Sickles High School mom Gina Wood asked her son recently if any of his friends wished classes started later in the morning. His response was something like, "Yeah, Mom, like everyone!" Wood likes the idea, too. The Sickles High PTA president wants Hillsborough County school district officials to shift the 7:27 a.m. start time for high schools to 9 a.m., when the first bell rings at most district middle schools."I just feel sorry for the high-schoolers," she said. "Some of them are showing up to school in their pajamas." Her concerns mirror those voiced across the country by parents and medical professionals. They point to evidence that later school start times are safer and can even lead to higher graduation rates. Pasco County plans to give the idea serious consideration for the 2012-2013 school year. On Monday, the Hillsborough County School Board will consider when the school day starts and ends. Hillsborough administrators want to leave these bell times where they've been for years, arguing that the current schedule keeps transportation costs down — a primary concern as the district is forced to trim bus routes. The obstacles are familiar to Ric Dressen, superintendent of schools in Edina, Minn., which is touted as the first school system in the nation to start high school later. It was difficult at first, said Dressen, who oversees nearly 8,000 students, but they got the community to buy into the idea. "It's become a part of our culture," he said. "It's the way we do business." Following a push by the Minnesota Medical Association, Edina officials in 1996 moved back the start time for high school from 7:20 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. The following year, Minneapolis, with some 52,000 students, followed suit, moving its start time from 7:15 a.m. to 8:40 a.m. Both districts soon reported a drop in the number of students who were tardy or absent. About five years later, Kyla Wahlstrom, a former elementary school principal turned University of Minnesota researcher, led a study of both schools. Findings showed there was less stress and depression among students, and a slight increase in test scores. More importantly, Wahlstrom said, the time changes had a direct impact on the number of students graduating from high school. "We saw a significant increase," she said, especially among kids at risk for dropping out. They weren't oversleeping anymore and missing the bus, then skipping the rest of the day because they didn't have a ride to school, Wahlstrom said. As director of the Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement, she continues to study the issue through a grant provided by the Centers for Disease Control. "They see it as a public health issue," Wahlstrom said. Teenagers need about nine hours of sleep, according to the National Sleep Foundation. Most only get about six hours. Some are driving to school half asleep or dozing off in class. Others are being diagnosed with learning or behavioral problems when, really, all they need is more sleep. "All of us have a biological clock," said Mac Anderson, program director for the University of South Florida's Sleep Medicine Fellowship Program and medical director of the Sleep Disorders Center at Tampa General Hospital. Teens just aren't wired to fall asleep until 10 or 11 p.m., he said. Anderson hasn't done specific studies on school start times, but he said there are plenty of findings that show there is a relationship between retention and lack of sleep. He sometimes treats teens who are high-achievers, taking Advanced Placement classes and participating in honors programs and sports, whose test scores suddenly begin falling. "Parents want to know why their grades are slipping," said Anderson, who explains they're underperforming because they are chronically sleep-deprived. Ken Otero, deputy superintendent for Hillsborough schools and a former high school teacher, acknowledges that most teens probably do need more sleep. "Yes, in a perfect world, it would be nice to start later," he said. But starting school later could push back after-school activities and leave some teens going to bed even later, Otero said. What really drives bell times, though, is transportation, he said. In Hillsborough, with about 194,000 students, high school starts about 7:30 a.m., followed by elementary at 8 a.m. and middle school an hour later. The schedule allows for the most efficient use of the district's buses and funding, Otero said. "Each bus has three runs," he explained. "Somebody has to start at 7:30." So why not elementary students, who are typically awake anyway? Otero lists other reasons for the status quo: Faced with a budget shortfall this year, the district reorganized its bus system, cutting back courtesy service to some areas and streamlining elsewhere. "We understand parents' concerns," Otero said, "but we can't run three separate bus systems. We have to do what allows us to run most efficiently and still have an effective instruction program." Every few years, the issue comes before the school board, said Vice Chairwoman Candy Olson. But for her, safety concerns always outweigh the potential benefits. "Do you want little kids going to the bus in pitch black?" she asked. "If you start high school later, then those kids are driving home later in the dark. "It's absolutely not perfect," Olson said. Still, she is open to some schools giving it a try. That's what Pasco County school officials are talking about doing next school year. School Superintendent Heather Fiorentino, whose district has about 67,000 students, told board members it might be time for a high school to pilot the idea to see whether there is any significant effect. About 10 years ago, the district compared one high school with a late start to another that started at 7:30 a.m. The school that started earlier had more tardies and, as the number increased, achievement decreased. But there was no evidence that a later start translated into better grades. Of Florida's five largest school districts, none has the bulk of its high schools starting later than middle and elementary schools. But interest in switching the schedules is growing, said Wahlstrom, who gets about 30 to 50 calls a year from school administrators wanting to know how to make it work. "The evidence is out there," she said. "It's what they decide to do with it." Not all students would welcome the chance to sleep a little later. "If everything was pushed back even an hour later, with my AP homework and everything else, it would be overwhelming," said Lennard High School senior LouAnn Benton, a cheerleader who's also a member of the track team and student government. Classmate Clint Grubb agreed. The earlier his day starts the better. "I think it kind of prepares you for the real world," he said. "Isn't that the job of a school?"
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